I had a post go up yesterday on YA Stands about “Preparing for National Novel Writing Month,” where I talked briefly about my outlining process. The most important thing I need to have in my head (or, preferably, down on digital paper) before I launch into a new manuscript? The beginning image of the story, and the ending image.
I use this phrase “image” intentionally. I don’t think it’s necessary–at least in my process–to know all the details before diving into a first draft. But what I need to know is:
Point A: Where the story begins. The tone, style, and voice; the immediate image I want to place in my reader’s mind.
Point B: Where the story ends up–usually parallel to the opening image (Point A) in tone, style, and voice, but changed, now that the character and plot arcs are complete. If the story opens with a man riding into town on a horse, then it makes sense for him to ride out of town on a horse at the end. (Even better if he comes in at sunrise, and leaves at sunset.) He is, of course, not the same man he was before, as a result of his time spent in the town.
The cinematic element–that visual image–is really important for me, personally, as a writer. It gives texture to the whole novel. Last year, before starting NaNoWriMo on November 1st, I sat down and wrote out just those two things:
Point A. Point B. Where do my heroes start? Where do they end? The coexisting contrast and parallel is a great way to put down, on paper, what’s going to happen. If your character starts a lawless rogue, but leaves a hero of the people–well, then, I have a good idea of what needs to happen in that middle section.
That’s where I start my character and plot arcs. How does my hero grow and change between Point A and Point B? What story do I need to weave around the character arc to effect that change?
I still believe it’s smart to have somewhat of an outline to go on for that middle section–but knowing my opening and closing images, as if it were a film reel, is a great guiding signpost.
A lot of folks go into NaNoWriMo not knowing all the parts and pieces of their story, and that’s fine. That works for some people. But I like to have a basic road map (one that will, most likely, change significantly once I sink my claws into the story) to get me started, and to glance at when I run into an idea block. Sometimes I’ll just work with a scratch pad of characters and sub-plots that could tie into the main story, should they prove appropriate, and draw from it when necessary.
But always, I keep my Point B in mind: where am I going to end up? What events absolutely must occur in order to wind up with my closing image?
Because it’s so satisfying to reach that point, and know exactly how it ends. To close the loop you started at the beginning, even if it’s not tied with a bow.
Because even if he’s leaving his lady and his new town folk behind, he looks so damn good riding off into the sunset.